By Jamison Cocklin
When unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show in February, the Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel represented a new era for the General Motors Co.— the era after the fall, after the bailout and after a stretch of diminishing sales.
Essentially, the company took its best-selling model worldwide, the Lordstown-built Chevrolet Cruze, and installed a highly efficient, clean-burning and powerful diesel engine under its hood.
The company didn’t reinvent its diesel engine, which is built in Germany. The Opel Astra and other GM models already used it overseas where consumers have long preferred the efficiency of diesel fuel, which is cheaper in Europe.
Now, after years of dominance in the North American diesel segment by foreign competitors such as Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz, it appears General Motors is poised to leverage some of that global experience and continue the sales gains of recent years — with a little help from the diesel Cruze.
“I think this a great time. Diesels account for the majority of sales globally. That’s part of the reason Volkswagen and Mercedes have done well with the German brands here,” said Eric Lyman, vice president of editorial content at ALG, which crunches data and conducts automotive brand research.
“I think automakers like GM clearly understood the economies of scale involved in developing vehicles for global distribution. Diesel has been so prominent in the global market, and that’s why it makes sense to release it here.”
When the diesel Cruze hits Valley showrooms in July, it will be the only diesel car of its kind made by a U.S. automaker. The last time GM released a diesel passenger car was in 1986 with the 1.8-liter Chevette.
The diesel Cruze already has touched down at dealerships in more than a dozen major markets nationwide.
In the few weeks the news media have had to review the vehicle, a buzz of positive reviews and overall excitement has built up around it.
Not much has changed with the exterior of the car — it’s nearly identical to its regular-grade counterpart — but it’s what’s underneath that counts in the auto world.
Car and Driver magazine, Motor Trend, Autoguide.com, Kelley Blue Book and Automobile Magazine, among many others, all have delivered positive verdicts — hours of reading about the new diesel Cruze are easy to find on the Internet these days.
“The fuel economy is stellar,” said Jack Nerad, executive editorial director at KBB. “The ability to go farther without having to fill up is nice; you’re not just paying less, but you’re going to the station less, too.”
The diesel Cruze will retail for $25,695 in what Car and Driver called a “head-to-head battle” with its primary competitor, the Volkswagen Jetta TDI, which retails for $24,885.
More importantly, though, the diesel Cruze’s 2.0-liter engine can produce 148 horsepower and about 258 pounds per foot of torque, which is a lot of muscle for a nonmuscle car.
In addition to its low-end torque, which gives the car incredible pickup between 0 and 40 miles per hour — ideal for “dipping into travel, darting into traffic or accelerating away from stops,” as Nerad described it — the car has a turbo overboost feature that’s initiated when a driver stomps the gas pedal, raising the maximum torque to 280 pounds per foot.
“Smooth and powerful acceleration, on the other hand, is something a car can’t do without; thankfully the [diesel Cruze] doesn’t have to,” wrote Autoguide.com. “Flooring the gas diesel pedal takes you to 60 mph in 8.6 [seconds]; while that isn’t particularly fast, you’re more likely to notice how smooth and quiet the experience is.”
KBB said the feature “takes much of the drama out of passing on two-lane highways.”
Though diesel gasoline is more expensive in the U.S. — priced at an average of $3.94 per gallon in Youngstown on Friday — the fact the diesel Cruze gets an EPA-estimated 46 miles per gallon on the highway makes the return on investment appealing, Lyman said.
The Volkswagen TDI gets 42 mpg, and a diesel engine traditionally means about 30 percent better fuel efficiency when compared with a regular-grade engine.
The diesel Cruze gets about 700 miles on one tank of gas, but GM engineers believe that if drivers go below the speed limit or economize their driving style, the vehicle can get 50 miles per gallon.
For Tessa Baughman, a GM engineer who took a road trip from Michigan to Arkansas, those figures meant 900 miles on one tank of gasoline, enabling her to drive farther without refueling on the first leg of her trip.
The testimonial, posted on GM’s website, generated a buzz that turns up page after page of web searches on the topic. GM is sticking to that 700-miles-per-tank figure, but some GM engineers are confident the car can stretch it.
In any event, the car appears to be another chapter for both Lordstown and GM, said Greg Greenwood, owner of Greenwood Chevrolet in Austintown, where the diesel Cruze is expected to arrive early this fall.
“I’m very excited about what this means for our car company,” he said. “We’re competing worldwide. Will the diesel Cruze help me retire early? Probably not, but overall it means we’re going head-to-head with Audi, Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz — that’s what is important.”